This is the story of my first ever cycle tour in 2002. I was 19 years old and broke, but desperately wanted to see the world.
A friend and I bought two second-hand mountain bikes for €40 each and planned to cycle from Paris to Rome. Neither of us had ever cycled further than 1 or 2 miles – to school and such. We spent about two months working in London to save up a few hundred pounds, a large section of which went on the Eurostar ticket to Paris.
This was before mobile phones and GPS. Our only guidance was a map book and a compass. We got lost often, and it was awesome. Eventually, we stopped using the map book for guidance and simply cycled into the wild. We only looked back on it occasionally to track the route we had come.
We bought a tent, roll mats and a gas stove. In four weeks cycling we never once paid for accommodation and spent about €1 a day on food. Oats for breakfast, spaghetti for dinner. We drank only water and black coffee, and invented some strange lunch options too, like bulk cheap croissants wrapped in budget salami. I can still taste it…
No bike, no problem
Unfortunately, halfway to Rome, one bike was stolen while we slept on the beach in Cannes. Unable to afford a new one, we sold the other and continued on foot, hitch-hiking. We crossed into Italy and walked for almost eight hours the first day without catching a single lift.
After spending two nights sleeping at a truck stop and still with no luck, we asked a police officer if he could help. He instructed us to hitch-hike on the freeway, and then promptly arrested us for doing so. We had no money for a fine or bribe, so eventually, he let us go.
Penniless but free, we eventually caught a lift to Genoa, and continued from there by hopping trains to Pisa, Venice and Florence, sleeping in stations and on beaches.
That trip was the single greatest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It not only made me fall in love with cycling and travel, but it defined everything that I am as a person today. It imbued within me a confidence to achieve any goal I desire, to never give up, to see the beauty in the world and all the possibilities in life.
Cycle touring is not about the bike or the equipment. Travel is not about the route or the destination.
This is possibly the only hostel in Chennai as it’s the only one I could find. Chennai isn’t a tourist destination at all, but serves more as an international airport hub for the surrounding tourism in Tamil Nadu. I imagine this hostel popped up as a means to serve backpackers with either very early or late flights who were unable to get onward transport. By Indian standards it’s a very decent hostel, albeit at a slightly high price (Rs600/night). It has a comfortable common room with satellite TV, clean dorms and a communal kitchen. As with most hostels in India it doesn’t include breakfast, but does have free tea, coffee and biscuits. Even the wifi is not bad and the showers had hot water when I used them! I can’t really comment on the location as there is nothing to see in Chennai, but it could be a bit closer to the airport.
Kochi is a small town with very little tourism and only a tiny selection of hostels. In fact, I believe this is one of only two. Kochi mostly serves as a transport hub to other areas of interest in Kerala, but it does have a nice old colonial village in Kochi Fort and serves as a starting point for tours of the Kerala Backwaters.
The hostel has a shared balcony upstairs for smokers and a decent common room in the reception area. It has a shared kitchen and includes free breakfast, which is a very good deal for only Rs550 / night. They also have hot water and offer a laundry service, although bizarrely you have to hang your clothes yourself.
I think this hostel initially began life as a boutique hotel and then added a dorm later because it’s the fanciest hostel I’ve ever stayed at. It has a large fancy reception area, expensive restaurant and beautiful outdoor swimming pool. The hostel dorm is separate from the main building and has a nice common area with satellite TV. The only downside to this epic hostel is the location – it’s in the middle of nowhere! It’s far from the beach and about ten kilometres from the nearest train station and airport. However, if you want to spend some quiet days chilling by the poolside in a fancy hotel without breaking the bank, it’s perfect. The restaurant even serves alcohol.
This is the cheapest hostel in Goa, and quite possibly India. It has three dorm rooms, the cheapest of which is only Rs99 a night – cheaper than a beer! The other two have more privacy and are Rs150. It doesn’t have any facilities and is incredibly dirty, but the outdoor sitting area is nice and the social vibe is great. They have a few basic breakfast options – tea, sandwiches and omelettes, and if you ask nicely they might let you use the kitchen. As with most of Goa, it’s a party hostel and plays loud music until late most nights – so don’t come if you like to sleep early. The location isn’t great as it’s far from the beach, but it is very close to Hilltop – a popular venue that has parties most weekends. They also have two private rooms for Rs800 a night. Bunkin’ is the perfect place for those on a (very) tight budget.
Hideout is one of the quietest and cleanest places in Goa, which is a rare thing – especially considering how affordable it is. It only has private double rooms, but for Rs1000 a night it works out similar to two dorm beds in most hostels. The rooms are fairly basic but include aircon and hot water, which is very good value for the price. The only downside is that it’s in a rather odd location, down a dirt path through an empty field slightly off the main beach road. It’s still only a five-minute walk to the beach, but for a similar price you can get rooms on the beach – however, they won’t be anywhere near as clean or quiet. For older couples or people with small children, Hideout is a perfect escape from the chaos of Anjuna while still being beach-accessible. The rooms would benefit greatly from a kettle, considering there is nowhere nearby to get a morning coffee and the hotel doesn’t do any food service.
Arambol doesn’t have many cheap accommodation options for backpackers, but Namahstay – just off the main road in the centre – fills this gap. It has a decent outdoor communal area, relatively clean rooms, laundry facilities and some basic food available. They also do occasional live music gigs in the outdoor area. It’s very close to the market and shops and a five minute walk from the beach. The nearby German Bakery is a must for breakfast – they do excellent Italian coffee and have an amazing selection of cakes and pastries.
Mowgli is a beautiful riverside resort just off the main road on the “Hippie island” side of Hampi, which has now become the only part of Hampi where accommodation is available due to Unesco clearing the south side of the river to protect the monuments and heritage. Mowgli offers deluxe river view rooms and cottages, a decent restaurant, pool table, scooter hire and of course wifi that only works occasionally. It’s not the cheapest accommodation in India but with the lack of hostels available in Hampi it’s still good value for money.
This hostel is right next to the international airport, so perfect if you are just arriving or leaving. It has a very nice outdoor communal area upstairs overlooking the street, with fans to keep away the mosquitos and a small communal kitchen. The rooms are very clean and all include en-suite bathrooms and very good security. The location is not ideal for sight-seeing or going out at night so most people here are just passing through, but this makes for a good vibe and a great way for people leaving to pass on useful travel info to those who just arrived. No alcohol is allowed in the hostel but there are two bars across the road.
Travellers Inn offers dorm and private rooms and is close to the main Mumbai CST train station and most tourist attractions. The rooms are clean and there is a nice common area to meet other travellers and a kitchen with tea/coffee facilities. The bathrooms are not great but fairly standard for India and the wifi works okay but otherwise ,it doesn’t have much to offer other than somewhere to crash.
For the price, you would not believe the amazing views you can get from this hotel! It is right on the Pichot Lake in Udaipur, overlooking the Royal Palace and an island temple. The rooms are spread over three floors and vary from basic double rooms with shared bathroom and no view to rooftop balcony rooms with TV, air-con and en-suite (£18).
However, even without a view room, you can experience the luxury of the views from the rooftop restaurant which has some luxurious seating and beautiful decor. While the food is not 5-star, the menu is quite extensive and most people will find something they like. They also serve alcohol and have a laundry service. The only downside I would say is that the hotel is very dirty.
Moustache hostel is excellent value for money in central Udaipur, overlooking the Pichola lake and walking distance from the palace. It features a rooftop restaurant and chill area which offers yoga every morning, as well as a downstairs common area. The hostel is generally quite clean but the bathrooms lack hot water, are old, and smell of sewerage – a common problem throughout Udaipur. The wifi is good although as is also common in Udaipur the electricity tends to go out for a few hours a day.
When I stayed at Hotel Gandharva it provided exceptionally good value for money. My only fear is that it was new and the price I got was a special opening rate because I can’t believe they would charge so little for what is essentially a 4-star hotel. Every room is immaculate and decked out with all the modern fittings – aircon, dimmed lighting, wall mounted big screen satellite TV, tea and coffee facilities, hot water rain shower, fresh towels and linen, room service – you name it! The hotel features two high-class restaurants and an outdoor swimming pool with water feature and sunbeds. The location isn’t perfect but it’s a short tuk-tuk ride from most attractions.
In northern Jaipur towards the Amber Fort and Jal Mahal lake is this very nice hostel with dorms from Rs600 and privates from Rs1250. The dorms are very clean and some of the more expensive private rooms are exceptional – with a large balcony, modern bathroom, aircon, kettle and satellite TV.
The hostel has a very sociable roof terrace, communal area with TV and PlayStation and small restaurant with free breakfast. They also sell beer for only Rs100. It’s a bit far from the main town but very convenient for visiting the Amber Fort and Jal Mahal, and a great place to meet other travellers.
This hotel is very cheap and it’s only real selling point is the excellent view of the Taj Mahal from the rooftop terrace. It’s very basic, the rooms are dirty, water is cold, food is not great and the wifi is almost non-existant. But it is just a five minute walk from the entrance to the Taj Mahal, which is really the only thing to see in Agra so it’s not a bad option just for one night.
Bedweiser has some decent, clean dorm rooms and a great roof top terrace with communal area and sattelite TV. It also sells a good selection of beers and food, and has a laundry service. The location to the Taj Mahal could be closer, but it’s still within walking distance (20 mins) or a 5 minute tuk-tuk ride. Also nearby is the Taj Nature Walk, which is a bit run-down but at least a nice respite from the constant noise and traffic. A good place to meet other travellers from all over the world.
Hampi is a surprisingly unknown place in India considering how amazing it is. I had briefly heard of it before going but not to a large degree, and I hadn’t seen many pictures of it. All I knew is that it had some old temples.
Well, I’m very glad I decided to go in the end because I very almost skipped it, which would have been a great loss. Ancient ruins and temples continue for miles over a huge area amongst beautiful surrounding scenery. The town itself is very small and quite rural, but across the river, a more developed town has sprung up with a number of modern restaurants and guesthouses aimed at tourists. In fact, we were told the government is planning to relocate the local villagers to new residences across the river and bulldozing the town in order to preserve the Unesco Heritage status of the ruins. Whether or not this is a good thing is debatable, and understandably some of the villagers who have lived there for decades are against it, but at the same time most of them earn a living from the tourism and therefore maintaining it would likely be in their best interests.
We arrived without any of this information and as a result, ended up booking and paying upfront for two nights in a room at a small, run-down guesthouse on the rural village side. I thought it was a bit odd they wanted us to pay for both nights upfront and only realised why after crossing the river. They knew we would move once seeing the amazing views and beautiful guesthouses available across the river, in what is colloquially referred to as ‘Hippie Island’ (although it is not, in fact, an island).
At the time we went there was only a small boat service to take people across the river but apparently, a bridge is being built in preparation for when the village is relocated. The boat service is really annoying because there are two boats and according to the driver each can only take passengers in one direction. They will also only go once they have reached 20 passengers, so many times we found ourselves waiting for ages for our boat to leave, while the other boat came across and dropped off passengers a number of times and each time went back empty.
On top of this, the boat guys are very proficient at ripping tourists off, in a number of ways which I’ll cover later. At the end of the day, it’s still very cheap, but it’s the principle of the matter. More importantly, it’s sad to see people who were once probably self-sufficient and unconcerned with making a quick buck, reduced to money-hunger and morally-bankrupt because of the encroachment of capitalist-fuelled tourism. This is in no way unique to Hampi, or India, but for some reason, it felt more apparent here. I think a recent and sudden burst of tourism has affected the area and people in a way that still needs to find a constructive and beneficial balance for all involved.
Baby on Board
We had arrived at 7 am on an overnight bus from Goa, so after dropping off our bags we went for some breakfast at a small street-side cafe and met a lovely Slovenian couple who were travelling with their 2-year-old. We chatted for quite awhile about travelling, India, babies and Miha’s freelance work as a video producer. Their baby had been quite sick for days so they hadn’t managed to leave their guesthouse or do any sightseeing. Being about the same age as us, I was impressed – but not at all envious – that they didn’t let their child stop them living their lives as they desired. You could tell Miha’s poor wife was feeling the pressure though, but fortunately when we saw them again the next day their child was already feeling better.
After breakfast, we explored some of the nearby temples by foot before catching the boat across to hippie island and discovering the beauty that is there. Although to be fair, we actually only discovered the comfortable mattresses inside of a restaurant built on bamboo stilts overlooking a rice paddy because we were both so exhausted from the bus journey we promptly fell asleep as soon as we had eaten lunch. Luckily we awoke in time to catch the last boat back! Once back we decided to climb the rocks behind our guesthouse and were rewarded with a stunning sunset over the temples of Hampi.
Cycling and Swimming
We awoke quite late the next day and after a quick traditional breakfast of idli and puri we crossed the river, hired some 100 rupee mountain bikes and cycled off to find Sampar lake. Along the way, we bumped into Rutger, a Dutch guy we had met on the bus who followed us on his scooter and joined us at the lake. We went on a brief but quite fun bamboo-boat ride and swam in the (apparently) crocodile-infested lake. Afterwards, we cycled back to town and enjoyed sun-downers at one of the beautiful riverside resorts.
Even though we arrived at the boat jetty before the last cut-off time of 5:30 pm (along with a number of other tourists), the boat guy purposely disappeared for about 20 minutes and then came back and told us we’d have to pay 50 rupees now because it was too late. We all protested but soon realised that unless we were going to swim across, we didn’t have any choice but to pay him. What made it even more annoying was that another boat carrying locals did three crossings during this time, with lots of empty seats each time, but wouldn’t let any of us on “because we were foreigners”. I imagine they have some agreement to do this and share the profits.
We decided to wake up early the next day, view some more of the temples before it got too hot and then return before midday to check out. A short walk over the hill from our guesthouse we discovered a massive ruined complex the size of a small airport, consisting of a large temple on one side made up of a few smaller buildings and a huge pillared courtyard that stretched over a few hundred metres. This led on to a few more temples and ended down by the riverside at a temple with the famous ‘stone chariot’ – which is, as the name suggests, a chariot made out of stone.
By 11 am we were tired and it was hot, so we started heading back and stopped for tea and idli at a small food stall. While there a cheeky monkey came out of nowhere and stole one of our idli cakes right off our plate! We also saw another monkey that must have been attacked – it had all his gums missing, exposing his teeth and skull and looking like something out of a horror movie. It was quite sad although somehow the monkey didn’t seem too bothered.
Escape the Heat
Once packed and checked-out we crossed the river for the final time and left our bags at the bus collection point. Then we rented a scooter and drove to a swimming spot somebody had told us about a few kilometres upriver. We spent a few hours there swimming and jumping off rocks. There were some Indian guys hanging around there who claimed to own the land and annoyingly kept bugging us to buy their snacks or drinks, with the unspoken threat of kicking us out if we didn’t. I highly doubt they really own the land, but I bought some over-priced crisps anyway to placate them.
We had our sleeper bus back to Goa booked for 7 pm that evening, so we quickly took the scooter back and watched one last beautiful sunset over the rice paddies before getting on a tuk-tuk to take us to the bus. This turned out to be a rather insane drive hanging off the back while squashed in with four other people and our bags balanced precariously on the roof. Along the way, the driver had to swerve to avoid cows sleeping in the road and the usual head-on traffic – and that was before we even go to our actual bus!
Gokarna is like a small little chilled out Goa, which in a way is really nice but also super quiet so, I imagine, could get boring after awhile. Fortunately I was only there for 2 nights with my friend Tobs. We drove down on a Royal Enfield from Arambol which is awesome and I highly recommend doing if you are brave enough for the Indian traffic. In total it took 5 hours and would have been nicely uneventful if it weren’t for Tobs’ DSLR camera falling out my backpack and smashing into pieces on the road!
Other than that and stopping for some food and beer we pretty much drove straight through. We arrived just as sun was setting, parked the Enfield and went to explore Kudle Beach (pronounced cuddly). We hadn’t planned ahead or booked anything and quickly found most places were full, so we caught a tuk-tuk to Ohm beach, about 1km away, but had no luck there either! Eventually we settled on a cheap 500 rupee room on Kudle beach which I thought was fairly decent and even had a view of the beach. Tobs wasn’t too stoked about the shared bathroom but we were out of options by that point.
After checking in we joined some other friends at a nearby restaurant on the beach for some beers and food. Towards midnight the power went out and it was completely pitch black and deathly quiet. Nobody even said anything, we just sat in silence and stared upwards at a night sky more dense with stars than space.
The next day after a decent breakfast we embarked on the 5km walk to Paradise Beach, a beach only accessible by foot along a rocky coastline path. The scenery along the way is unbelievable – by far the best I saw while in India and strong competition to most other coastlines. We stopped at a tiny beach shack along the way on the otherwise-deserted half-moon beach and had a coffee and some biscuits.
Paradise beach turned out to be a small, secluded cove full of palm trees, with some hammocks here and there and a Hindu shrine. Some other travelers were hanging around and there were a few tents, indicating some were sleeping here. There were also a number of locals who presumably lived nearby, selling coconuts, drinks and snacks. I must say, by comparison to the Koh Rong island beaches in Cambodia, ‘Paradise beach’ might be a slightly presumptuous title. However, I could totally see myself camping here for a few days – dependent on how intrusive the locals are (in India, camping can turn you into something of a spectacle).
After chilling for a few hours enjoying coconuts, snacks and playing with puppies we decided to join some others on a boat back to Ohm beach, rather than try hike the 5km again in the fading light. This turned out to be a lot of fun, with the sun setting and some big swell coming in.
It was Shiva Ratri festival that evening which is one of the most sacred Hindu festivals so after getting back we walked down to town to investigate. Unfortunately queues to get into the temples were huge but we did enjoy some local music and went to one smaller temple on a hill with nice ocean views. While there we bumped into my German friends from Goa and chilled with them for a bit before getting food and heading to bed.
I’m sad I didn’t have longer to spend in Gokarna as I would have liked to camp on Paradise Beach and I think there is a lot more to the surrounding area to explore. It’s also super chilled out and quiet, which is a nice respite to the rest of India. If you have a chance to visit I would recommend spending 5 days to a week. It’s slightly cheaper than Goa too, except for alcohol.
When people think of going off on a long-term trip to an exotic foreign country on their own, the majority of things they worry about aren’t actually the things you need to worry about. Crime and sickness are big ones, and yet out of the 40+ countries I’ve been to I’ve been sick and scammed more often in London than anywhere else. In this guide, we’ll look at some tips to survive long-term solo travel.
Nothing to Lose
I’ve (touch wood) never been a victim of crime in a foreign country, except in Monaco when I was much younger and my video camera got stolen from the train platform. Actually, once in France someone tried to steal my wallet but it had so little money in it they said sorry and gave it back. And one time while growing up in South Africa someone tried to steal my car but it was such a piece of crap they couldn’t get it started and gave up. Moral of the story – having nothing worth stealing is the best way to not get robbed.
Loneliness is another big one, and it’s something I was most worried about the first time I went travelling on my own. How wrong I was to worry – within two hours of being off the plane I was out partying with a big new group of friends, some of whom I’m still in contact with to this day. For the next six months, I didn’t spend a single day alone unless I specifically chose to. Of course, this may vary depending on where you are – if you’re cycling across the Australian outback you might find yourself conversing with lizards after awhile!
The point is – you have nothing to fear but fear itself. Developing a certain level of confidence while travelling is imperative to having a successful time and enjoying yourself. It’s far better than constantly looking over your shoulder and missing out on making good friends because you don’t trust anyone.
So here are some pointers to get you off on the right foot…
SHIT HAPPENS, accept it.
Things will go wrong. Flights will be missed. Bedbugs will happen. Phones will be lost. No amount of planning can account for every possibility, and in fact, over-planning can simply complicate things and also take the fun out of it. With long-term solo travel, you need to have a certain amount of lee-way and be ready to adapt to any situation.
In Thailand, I had an 11 pm train that was delayed for 5 hours! I was in a tiny village so there was nothing to do and nowhere to go other than waiting on the platform. I made friends with some other people there, we got chatting, they shared some of their beers, and in no time it was 4 am and the train was there.
In Berlin, I missed my flight home because I didn’t realise how far away the airport was. It was the last flight that day, but through a friend of a friend, I got hold of a lovely couple who let me stay the night at their place!
One time in Zurich every plane was grounded due to snow and all the hotels were full. So my girlfriend and I, along with another stranded traveller, built some beds out of a left-over Christmas display and ended up having a fun night.
In Kampot, Cambodia, I got back to my hostel too late and they had locked everything up, so I explored a nearby construction site and found a mattress on the second floor that provided a more-than-adequate bed for the night – I didn’t even get a single mosquito bite!
A few days later on a ferry back to the mainland from an island, the engine broke down and we were diverted to another island. Rather than wait on the boat for them to fix the engine I went to explore the island, ended up spending three days there and had one of the best times of my life. Everything happens for a reason.
“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try some time you just might find… you get what you need.”
Fear of things going wrong holds people back immensely in life, but reflect on your past I’m sure you’ll find that all those things you were afraid of happening, probably didn’t…. and the things that DID go wrong, you couldn’t possibly have predicted. Just roll with it.
DON’T STRESS, assess.
99% of the time whatever goes wrong is not that serious and even if it is, stressing won’t help. Staying calm will help you think clearly and assess your situation. Sometimes, if it is really serious, staying calm can mean the difference between life and death! (Okay, I’ve never had that happen to me but I guess if you’re lost in the desert with no water it could be applicable).
If you lose money or your phone, it’s gone – don’t even waste 5 minutes getting upset about it. Rather think how you’re going to rectify the situation. When I broke my phone in a tiny village in Thailand I just went without a phone for a week, and you know what? I didn’t even miss it! Back in civilisation, I bought a cheap replacement phone from 7-Eleven for £12 that got me along fine for the next few months.
In Sri Lanka, I accidentally gave a tuk-tuk driver the equivalent of £40 instead of £4 (which may not seem a lot but a long-term solo travel budget is often as low as £10 a day). So I just tightened my budget the next few days and made up the loss.
When arriving for the first time in India the airport had no ATM’s and I had no local currency! There was also no wifi so I couldn’t even google an ATM, but a friendly parking attendant kindly took me on his motorbike to an ATM a few kilometres away. Things have a way of working out, and staying calm will ease that process.
These aren’t even serious problems. In Vietnam, I saw a guy who had been hit in the face with a machete simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time – save your stress for when that happens (he was fine in the end).
TRUST EVERYONE, but trust your instincts more.
The vast majority of people only want to make friends, help you, or are simply curious. Yes, in certain busy tourist areas there are those who are always trying to sell you something, but these people become easy to spot and ignore. However every now and again a seemingly innocuous encounter with a friendly local or fellow traveller can turn sour, and if it doesn’t feel right – get out of there! In a recent trip to Istanbul, I was travelling alone and was invited to a club by a local. He seemed very friendly and we were getting along but something didn’t feel right, so I politely said goodbye and left.
I later found out I had been sucked into a common scam where they take you somewhere, serve you some drinks and then give you a huge bill at the end with loads of stuff you didn’t order. If you don’t pay, the bouncers drag you to an ATM and force you to draw out all your cash. However, stuff like this is rare (well, location dependent) and I still maintain a belief of innocent until proven guilty. I’ve made a huge number of friends and received an endless amount of help through trusting people in every country I’ve been too. Sometimes the scariest looking people have turned out to be the warmest and kindest, so don’t judge a book by its cover!
BE REALISTIC, but don’t be ripped off.
The best thing about travelling cheap is that wherever you stay, whatever food you eat or whatever transport you take, you know that it’s not going to be 5-star. Even if it’s really bad, it didn’t cost much so it’s no big loss. If your 50p noodle soup doesn’t taste good, well it was 50p – what did you expect? Wifi slow in your £4 hostel? You’re in a tiny village in a 3rd world country, it’s amazing they even have wifi!
Long-term solo travel teaches you the need to be realistic. I recently checked into a cheap motel in India, and the owner said the rooms are usually 700 rupees but he’ll give me one for 500 because I’m alone. I was very grateful. Just after, another couple came in saying they are on a tight budget and need a cheap room: he offered them a discount at 600 rupees, but the women took a look and complained there is no TV! Really, you expect a TV in a £7 hotel room?
But if there was no TV in a £50 hotel room – now that’s going to annoy me. The only times I’m upset or disappointed travelling is when it involves something expensive. There is nothing worse than deciding to spend a little bit extra on something to spoil yourself, only to find it’s nothing like advertised. So yes, every now again it’s nice to spend a bit more – but do your research, because the most expensive things are usually the biggest rip-offs!
ORIENTATE YOURSELF, or embrace getting lost.
What’s the first thing you do when arriving at accommodation in a new town? Get drunk at the bar! Well yes that too, but first connect to the wifi and save your location on Google Maps. When embarking on long-term solo travel, you need to know where you are!
In Vietnam, a big group of friends and I checked into a guest house and then went out for dinner, proceeded to all get a bit drunk and as a result got separated on the walk home. One couple who were lagging behind missed the turnoff to the house and proceeded to wander around for hours looking for it before eventually sneaking into a hotel and crashing in an empty room!
In the end, it wasn’t a bad result so sometimes getting lost can be fun, but it could have been far worse! I got lost once going home at a ski resort and for a brief moment had visions of freezing to death in the snow! Learning how to read maps properly is imperative to successful travel, and there are a few tips and tricks to help.
Firstly, download offline maps of the area you are going to (or download Maps.Me which works offline). Even if you have a sim card, often in places with bad signal, downloaded maps work better. Obviously having a backup paper map is a good idea but honestly, I’ve only ever relied on my phone and it’s never been a problem.
Secondly, learn to find north – just because Google Maps on your phone is pointing north that doesn’t mean you are! And uphill doesn’t mean north either – seriously I’ve met people who thought they were going north because they were going uphill. How they even got out of bed amazes me.
Most phones these days have compasses so this is largely redundant but it’s still good general knowledge if your phone battery dies. The obvious one is the sun – if it’s 4 pm, the sun is west, if it’s 9 am the sun is east. If it’s night time, you’ll need to know what hemisphere you’re in and a few star constellations – in the north the bottom two stars of the big dipper point to Polaris which is approximately north and in the south, the southern cross is easy to spot and slightly right of true south. (In reality, this gets somewhat more detailed, so research it if you’re really interested).
If you’re in a bright city you won’t be able to see stars so another neat trick is satellite dishes – all satellite dishes in the southern hemisphere will point somewhere north, and in the northern hemisphere somewhere south – but this is not exact. For example, in the US they all point south, but in the UK they point south-east.
…..and last but not least:
TAKE RISKS, or:
“become an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone”.
Sleep in train stations, eat food that moves, visit a war-torn country, hit on the flight attendant, play poker with the Yakuza, drive an unlicensed £80 motorbike across Vietnam in the pitch black pouring rain with no lights, stow-away on a cruise-liner, blag your way backstage, get naked on the dance floor, tattoo yourself while drunk…… but whatever you do, don’t take the biggest risk of all – don’t die without ever having lived.
The morning of February 28, 2018, started fairly uneventfully, with a wander through a filthy slum to a train station. Conny and I were just outside Mumbai and needed to catch a short train in and find somewhere to store my bicycle before heading north to Udaipur in time for Holi Festival the following day. After the usual attempts to scam me out of more money than was due I eventually secured tickets for the three of us onto a local Mumbai train in the luggage coach.
Once on the train, I realised neither us nor the bike actually required a ticket since it would be impossible to check tickets in this coach – it was jam-packed full of fish, vegetables, delivery boxes, small animals and various throngs of people carrying all sorts of items for sale to the 20-million inhabitants of Mumbai. How we managed to get the bicycle on was a small miracle in itself, not to mention that we had to change trains once along the way. This involved finding the exact right place to stand on the platform and then trying to crush into the luggage car against the exiting throng of people while other luggage passengers tried to crush in behind us with all their boxes and fruit carts etc.
Not Quite a Motorbike, But Okay
Around mid-day, we arrived at Dadar station in central Mumbai and immediately started the search for a decent bicycle storage location. I was averse to just leaving it chained on the roadside for three weeks, even though I knew bike theft in India was very rare. We wondered the streets for about an hour, ending up at a dusty car park between two run-down apartment blocks behind a police building. There were some filthy cars and motorbikes around, looking very much like they had been there for years, and I briefly considered trying to hide the bike behind one of these. However, after getting some advice from the local police, we were directed to a long-term motorcycle parking lot between two of the platforms which as usual in India turned out to be a lot harder to find than expected.
We walked up and down a few staircases and back-and-forth along rail over-passes before resigning to fate and asking for directions. The usual barrage of contradictory directions by confused locals ensued, and yet by some miracle, we actually managed to find it in the end! We spoke to the guard on duty who initially seemed confused with the concept of storing a bicycle but eventually agreed to look after it for a small fee of 600 rupees. While we were there discussing things, two friendly crew members of an ambulance parked nearby offered to share their lunch with us – a common occurrence in India when almost anybody is eating.
Not Just the Wrong Platform – the Wrong Station
Having lightened my load considerably and had a filling lunch, we headed off to buy tickets for the 17-hour overnight train to Udaipur. The first little window hole we asked instructed us we needed to go to window 26. We wandered around for half an hour finding windows for every number except 26 until eventually inquiring at another window hole. This one informed us we were not even at the right station and our train was actually leaving from the nearby Bandra station, so we had to take a local metro train and go three stops north. Once there we were told we need to go a further few hundred metres to Bandra Terminus station where the mainline trains run from. Luckily on the way, we were saved by a friendly local guy going the same way who let us share his tuk-tuk and showed us where to buy general class tickets (it was too late for seat reservations).
By now it was ten minutes until our train so we ran off to the platform together. Thinking that I was being clever, I abandoned the local guy who was heading to general class and jumped into a sleeper class carriage with Conny, hoping that we could find a free bed or seats for the journey. Initially this worked well and we sat for the first few stops, but when the conductor came around, instead of telling us we were in the wrong seats he told us the part of the train we were in was not going to Udaipur and we needed to get off at the next station and move to the back carriage. I think this was just his roundabout way of telling us we need to go to general class, but at least he didn’t try to give us a fine.
Nope, Not That Station Either
With our backpacks back on our backs, we went over to the doorway to wait for the next stop. After a short while, the train started to slow down at a station and had almost come to a complete stop when we hopped off. As soon as we landed on the platform the train started to speed up again and someone on the platform shouted to us that it wasn’t stopping here! I ran after the train and jumped back into one of the open doors, but by now it was moving too fast and Conny couldn’t catch it. I looked back and saw her stuck on the platform and realised I would have to jump off again or lose her. I hit the ground running but my feet folded under me and I body-slammed into the platform, skidding along the concrete for a few feet before coming to a stop. I was pretty badly grazed and cut but didn’t appear to have any serious injuries, so got up and walked back to where Conny was now talking to a train official.
That was the last direct train to Udaipur, and as far as we knew our last chance to make it in time for Holi Festival. We tended to some of my wounds and then went with the train official to the station masters office to see if there is any other way. After some discussions amongst themselves, they wrote down two trains for us that were going to a town called Ratlam, where they said we could get another train or bus to Udaipur. First, however, we would need to go all the way back to Boraveli station since the platform we had jumped off on was at a tiny station and hardly any trains stopped here. We got a metro train back to Boraveli and found a ticket counter to ask about trains to Ratlam. I asked if we could get a refund on our previous tickets but were told we don’t need to buy new tickets, we can still use our current tickets on the Jaipur express to Ratlam.
Don’t Celebrate Just Yet
We found our platform, got some food and coffee and sat down to wait for the train to come. Once it arrived we didn’t know where to get on and ended up in an expensive AC car so had to walk through a whole bunch of carriages to the back of the train. General class was completely ram-packed as expected, and we couldn’t even get close to the door because of all the other people sitting in the corridor. It looked like this train was very busy and I began to realize there is no chance we were going to get seats. Oh well, only ten hours to Ratlam!
We wandered back aimlessly through the carriages hoping to find an empty square of floor to sit on, but without any luck. Fortunately, a nice guy in sleeper class said we can sit with him and a group of other people for a few hours until such a time as they needed to sleep. He suggested it would be best if we got off at Vadodara station just after midnight and from there we could possibly get a bus to Udaipur in the morning. Predictably, a ticket officer came around before Vadodara and once seeing our tickets, told us we would have to pay a fine. I argued that we had tried to get into general class but it was impossible, “There were too many people, what could we do?” I implored. Eventually, he let us off but told us we must get off at the next station, Surat, and either go to general class or find another train. This didn’t bode well for our Vadodara plans.
By the time the train reached Surat, it was almost midnight. Most of the people in the berth were trying to sleep and we felt a bit like we were imposing, so we decided we better move anyway. We tried again in vain to get into general class but it was even more packed now than before! We ended up squashing into the corridor just outside with a group of other exiles who were no doubt initially upset with our invasion, but politely made space for us anyway. Unfortunately, it was in the corridor where the toilets were located and for some reason, the entire train decided now was the time to go. We spent the next half an hour being stepped on, cursed at and squashed past by a never-ending stream of full (and then empty) bladdered passengers.
Arrival to Ahmedabad
Typically, just half an hour before Vadodara, the ticket inspector returned. This time he was a bit more vehement in his protests that we must pay a 900 rupee fine. Unfortunately for him, the entire contents of my wallet came to just over 50 rupees, if you include the half-century-old 20 paise coin I was carrying around in the hope of one day selling for a fortune – he certainly wasn’t getting that treasure! Upon seeing the sad state of my wallet he suddenly developed a smidgen of pity and walked off mumbling something under his breath in Hindi, no doubt about poor foreigners with no respect for the sanctity of Indian trains. He also attempted to fine the other passengers sitting around with us, but had about the same amount of luck.
Finally, just after midnight, we began to slow down and Vadodara station crept up slowly outside the windows. We alighted amongst a throng of exiting and entering passengers and stumbled out into the dimly lit station. During the train journey I had done a quick google search and found that while there we no sleeper buses to Udaipur from Vadodara, we might be able to get a 5:30 am sleeper bus from Ahmedabad – another town only a few hours away. While we were going to check about any trains to Ahmedabad, the nice guy from the train who had helped us earlier came up to see if we were okay. After explaining to him our plan he shook his head and informed us there were no more trains now, but he will drive us to the local bus station where buses to Ahmedabad leave regularly all night.
We thanked him profusely as he dropped us off and he instructed us to catch the bus from platform one. This was confirmed by the information office and after a quick toilet stop a bus soon arrived and we were on our way. The bus was extraordinarily busy for 1 am but a nice man made space for Conny to sit and I made myself comfortable on the floor in the aisle, reading my very appropriate literature – a book called “India Calling” – while Conny dozed off.
A Much Needed Sleeper Bus
The bus ride was quicker than I expected and we were in Ahmedabad by 3 am, which gave us two and half hours to kill until our sleeper bus. We flopped down on the floor against a pillar and ate our remaining few snacks. We were both in surprisingly good spirits considering we had been travelling non-stop for almost 20 hours by now over nine separate journeys – instead of one! The time passed quickly as we looked back at the day and joked about our situation, and before we knew it 5 am had struck and it was time to catch a tuk-tuk a short distance to the other bus stand where the big sleeper buses departed from.
The usual price negotiations began and we went back and forth between tuk-tuk drivers until the original driver eventually offered to take us for roughly the price we had quoted him to start with. This is a bizarre ritual that needs to be enacted every time you get a tuk-tuk, even though both of you know that in the end, he will take you for the fair price you originally asked for.
The distance ended up being a bit further than I had gauged from Google Maps and for a brief second I worried we might be late, but of course, the sleeper bus was delayed by an hour and would only leave at 6:30 am. The office clerk who checked our tickets explained: “Bus is always late”. Conny promptly fell asleep in the waiting room as I tried to explain to him that if they know the buses are always late then why not just advertise it as leaving an hour later? This logic was clearly lost on him so I wandered off to find more of the sweet milky tea that is the lifeblood of India. A few cups later and a couple of chapters of my book and lo-and-behold the 11th and (hopefully) final vehicle of our epic journey arrived. With the sun just beginning to peak over the horizon we fumbled aboard, found our tiny bus bed and both instantly passed out – sleeping without interruption for the entire five-hour journey.
As I disembarked at the Udaipur bus stand, still half asleep but feeling very victorious, I asked another English guy where he had come from.
“Mumbai” he replied.
“Oh us too,” I laughed “Took us about 28 hours and 10 different trains and buses!”
The response I got was a look of utter confusion. It was at that moment I noticed the huge letters plastered across the side of the bus:
This is just a general guide on how I travel cheap, but in each individual country page I include more detailed, relevant information.
I have two facets to travelling cheap – “Saving while Working” and “Saving while Travelling”, but both revolve around similar core-concepts. Depending on your income level and/or the way in which you like to travel, each may apply to you in a different way.
SAVING WHILE WORKING
Everyone is always asking how I travel so much. Sadly I have no big secret – I didn’t win the lottery, I’m not a trust-fund kid, I don’t have anybody paying for me. I simply follow one rule – earn high, spend low. Seems like an obvious statement, but very few people follow the second step. I spend as little as possible on rent by sharing rooms, staying in super cheap student housing or crashing on friends sofas. Of course, this would not suit everybody but hey – if you wanna travel the world and you’re not a millionaire you’re going to have to make some sacrifices!
I also eat a lot of rice, frozen veg, spaghetti, tin tomatoes etc, always buy reduced price food, almost never drink out at bars or pubs and never eat at restaurants. I cycle EVERYWHERE. In fact this is probably my biggest saving – I save over £2000 a year simply by refusing to ever pay for public transport or taxis, even if it’s 3am and it’s raining. Like I said – sacrifices. There are various other ways, like taking a packed lunch to work and drinking the free work coffee instead of the exorbitantly over-priced coffee shops (I mean seriously, £3 for a coffee? Are you crazy?). I also almost never buy clothes unless it’s an absolute necessity, and even then we’re talking £3 t-shirts or £10 jeans, usually at second-hand stores. In fact everything I buy is second-hand – shpock and facebook marketplace are my saviours. I never sign up to anything – I’ve never had a phone contract, I don’t have spotify, netflix, sky, a gym membership – in fact I’ve never had a single direct-debit on my bank account. In short, when working and saving I live like someone on minimum wage or less, but that’s fine because the other 6 months of the year I can travel the world which makes it all worthwhile. Which takes us to step two…
SAVING WHILE TRAVELLING
Hostels and Hotels
Do you like fancy hotels, private rooms, hot water, air-con? This might not be the blog for you. Once again, travelling cheap means sacrifices – you know that little option at the top of hotel search apps that says “Sort by Price – Low to High”? Yeah, I use that a lot. Hostels are your best friend if you’re travelling alone, but in many places it’s also possible to find private rooms for almost the same price. For example I recently found a really nice private room in Sri Lanka for £5 a night! Okay sure, the bathroom was shared but this is hardly a big problem. If you’re travelling as a couple you can often get a private room for the same price as two hostel beds. My favourite apps are Hostel World and Trivago. (Booking.com is very popular but they sometimes have hidden costs not included in the quoted price and their customer service is terrible so I would avoid them.)
Staying with Locals
Sites like Couchsurfing and WarmShowers are also great for meeting and staying with local residents, and getting the chance to experience a country like locals do. The Couchsurfing app tries to convince you to pay and verify your account but you can use it fine without being verified. Many countries in Asia have ‘homestays’ – local people who rent out cheap rooms in their houses and invite you live with them as if you were part of the family.
Depending on how brave you are and what country you are in, you can often find places to sleep for free, if you really want to save money! These can be anything from hammocks or sunbeds on the beach, to abandoned buildings or construction sites. But again, this depends massively on the safety of where you are – I had no problems doing this in most of South East Asia (especially Cambodia), but it’s probably less recommended in most African and South American countries (although according to my favourite blog “hitchtheworld.com” it would seem South America is fine too).
In most of Europe or the US you’ll likely be asked to move by law enforcement, although me and a friend managed to sleep quite comfortably on the beach in Cannes, and behind a few shops and truck stops in parts of Italy. The smaller the town the better luck you will have. I generally try to avoid cities in all circumstances because they are noisy, polluted and over-priced – and visit them only for work or the airports.
FOOD AND DRINK
Everyone has heard of tourist traps, but what most people don’t realise is that practically anywhere you go is a tourist trap – if it wasn’t you wouldn’t have heard of it! Restaurants and bars around the town centre of your new destination might seem cheap at first, but if you venture off the main strip into the local areas you’ll be surprised to find amazing authentic places for half the price, and get the rare opportunity to meet some local people in their own environment – not just trying to sell you sunglasses on the beach! Street food is generally the cheapest way to eat anywhere – in Sri Lanka you can get great little snacks like roti’s and samosa’s for between 10 – 25p. In Vietnam, Bahn Mi (baguette sandwich) is available everywhere from between 70-90p, and even sit down restaurants serve huge bowls of Pho for only £1. Thailand is synonymous with street food – for less than £1 you can get a huge array of food including spring rolls, fried chicken, fish, fruit – you name it! European and American towns have less street food options so in expensive places like Paris I buy bread, cheese and fruit at shops or markets to save money. Many hostels will have communal kitchens so if you are with friends you could save even more by buying ingredients and cooking together. Always buy products local to the country you are in, so don’t try make pasta in Thailand – rice and a curry with seasonal vegetables will be much cheaper!
Alcohol is usually a big expense for most people, especially when travelling – present company not excluded! I won’t lie – I really like my beer, and if I’m honest sometimes alcohol makes up 50% of my travel costs! That seems crazy when I see it in writing, but there is no point travelling so cheap that you don’t even enjoy yourself, and of course when money is really tight then it’s the first thing I cut out. Fortunately in a lot of countries I have found they will let you bring some store bought alcohol into cheap restaurants, or even bars, as they assume once you are done with that you will buy more. Just don’t be a dick and bring a few bottles of whiskey in!
The average price of a can of supermarket beer is approximately £1 in almost every country I’ve ever been, with a few exceptions like Vietnam where it can be as low as 30p, and of course Islamic countries where it is usually illegal or if not, exceptionally expensive.
Drinking before going out and avoiding rip-off touristy bars are the most obvious ways to keep this expense low.
Transport is a big one when travelling, and usually it all starts with flights. Most people are quick to use flight aggregation sites like Skyscanner, Cheapflights and Google Flights, which are great – but just for the info! In most cases it’s best to use these sites to find the cheapest routes, but then often cheaper to book through the airline independently. Also these sites will quote you the cheapest fare covering your route in the fastest time with the shortest lay-over, but often you can save money by purchasing two separate flights on the same path and also spend some time in a new country. For example, I recently searched for a flight from London to Dubai, and the cheapest route was on Pegasus airlines via Istanbul. So I searched on the Pegasus website for individual flights from London to Istanbul and then Istanbul to Dubai a few days later and managed to get a cheaper overall price – plus I got myself an unexpected short holiday in Turkey! Ofcourse this only works if you’re not on a tight schedule, but I highly recommend always not being on a tight schedule.
Once in your country of choice, you’ll likely want to be moving around frequently. Almost every country in the world has a vast spectrum of transport choices, and my favourite is always trains. Train travel is usually the most affordable, fastest and comfortable way to travel (except in the UK). However, western ideals of comfort have created in most countries ridiculous price differences in travel classes, with many railway services offering “1st class” tickets at ten times the price of normal tickets, but offering very little value for money. Seriously, air-con is not that important – even 3rd class carriages have fans, which are more than enough. I’ve travelled 12 hour journeys in 3rd class in humid 40 degree countries and I’ve survived! Honestly, you’ll be fine. (And if not, most 3rd world countries sell Xanax without prescription for next to nothing.)
Buses are the next best thing for cheap public transport, and usually cover all the routes that trains don’t. In some countries I’ve found long distance overnight bus travel to be very cheap, especially around South East Asia. There is a safety aspect – it’s recommended not to leave any valuables in the luggage hold, not to mention the occasional road accident – so take due care in certain countries when choosing to travel by bus. Personally I’ve never had a problem, but I’ve heard enough stories of people who have.
Most Asian countries have tuk-tuks which are like small motor-bike taxis with seating for up to 3 people. These are great ways to go small distances but usually cost more than buses and are notorious for ripping of unsuspecting foreigners, so find out first what it should cost for where you are going and ensure to agree a price before getting in. They also make walking on the streets a highly annoying task as they continuously stop to offer you a lift.
Which brings us to hitch-hiking. Now hitch-hiking is a very sensitive topic with a lot of people, and no doubt for good reason. The biggest issue being gender related – obviously for women there is a massively inherent danger with getting into a car with a stranger. That said, I have met and spoken to a large number of female solo hitch-hikers who have never had any issues in certain areas, mostly south-east Asia. Hitchwiki is a great website run by a world-wide community of hitch-hikers, giving a huge amount of detailed information on where to avoid, where to stand, places to crash, busy routes, quiet routes etc. I haven’t hitch-hiked a huge amount but I’ve had great success in Thailand and Laos – poorer countries are generally better and I’ve found those less well-off are often the quickest to stop and offer a lift.
ALSO – walking and cycling are free and I highly suggest you do them as often as possible. Even 5km is not really that far (if you aren’t on a tight schedule) and you may see and experience things you would have missed out on if you were in a bus.
No matter how much money you save, if you don’t have access to your money it’s of no use! I encounter an endless stream of people who lose their wallet or bag with their only debit card in it in a foreign country and have no idea how to get a replacement card while abroad – something that is generally very difficult! Before going on a long trip always ask your bank for a second card that you can keep safely back in your hotel or hostel when you go out. If you have a credit card keep it for emergencies only and don’t carry it out with you. In fact it’s best to only ever take out the cash you need for that day or night and leave everything else back at your accommodation.
In a lot of countries drawing cash from ATM’s incur a big charge (like in Thailand it’s £5, plus whatever percentage your bank charges) so you’ll want to draw a lot of cash at once and keep this in a safe place at your accommodation. Always check that you can draw cash in the country you are visiting, and if not bring enough foreign currency for your entire trip. If possible it’s good to have a mix of cards, ie Visa and Mastercard, as some ATM’s only take one or the other.
There is always a danger of money getting stolen from your account if your debit card is lost or stolen, so I always keep the majority of my cash in my separate savings account and then move money using my Barclays app on my phone when I need to draw cash. This way if somebody does get my card they will only have access to about £30. A potential problem with this is losing or breaking your phone and not having access to the app, so it’s also good to carry your banks card security console (Pinsentry or similar) with you if your bank has one.
Travel light! I cannot stress this enough. No matter how long your trip, you never need more than a weeks worth of clothes. I only ever travel with one backpack that fits into carry-on luggage and weighs between 10-12kg. This is advantageous for many reasons – no excess baggage charges, the airline can’t lose it, you don’t have to wait at the baggage carousel and it’s small and light enough to walk long distances with when hitch-hiking or even just trying to find a hotel or hostel. With a small bag there is also much more chance a bar or restaurant will be happy to stash it for you overnight while you crash on a hammock or sunbed. Furthermore, you will be able to take it onto buses with you so no worries of theft from the luggage compartment or forgetting something in your bag that you may need on-board. Basically, you’ll be lighter, happier and always have whatever you need at hand. The only exception to this is when travelling in very cold countries where excessive warm clothing is required and so a big bag is unavoidable.
My essential luggage items are:
Basic clothing (4 shirts, 3 shorts, some socks, trainers, flip flops and maybe a warm hoodie or jersey)
Phone charger and power bank
Basic toiletries (toothpaste, brush, deodorant) and basic medical (some plasters and antiseptic cream)
Glasses and sunglasses
(I realise girls with hair might need luxury items like shampoo and stuff so I can accept they may not be able to travel as light as me, but most hostels and hotels have soap and sometimes even shampoo. Or just make friends with somebody who does!)
Beyond the essentials I also carry a tiny laptop (to write this), a hammock, a unicorn mask, a GoPro, an electric razor, nail-clippers, a portable speaker and some other non-essential items because just like everybody I also tend to pack way more than I actually need.